Cap-Stone of the Great American Empire

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James Wilson.

The political theory that emerged from the Revolution and the debates surrounding the Constitution was not “a matter of deliberation as it was a matter of necessity.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 593.

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Guarding Against an Evil

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Benjamin Franklin. By: Joseph Siffred Duplessis.

Americans’ political beliefs were rapidly changing as the American Revolution progressed into the early years of the Republic. In fact, those beliefs were “constantly in flux, continually adapting and adjusting to ever-shifting political and social circumstances.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 438.

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Franklin The Turncoat?

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Benjamin Franklin, depicted in London in 1767. By: David Martin.

Benjamin Franklin, one of the most well-known and most revered Founding Fathers, had a more controversial history than most modern Americans realize.

In the late 1750s and early 1760s, Franklin was a “complete Anglophile.” Gordon Wood, Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different, 79. He made “disparaging comments about the provinciality and vulgarity of America in contrast with the sophistication and worthiness of England.” Id. He also believed that America, not England, was “corrupt and luxury-loving.” Id.

While living in England, Franklin was becoming more influential and had become a deputy postmaster. Id. at 84. In 1772, Franklin came into possession of some damning letters that would change his life. In the late 1760s, Thomas Hutchinson, the then-lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, had written letters to an Englishman advocating taking away liberties from the colonists so as to “maintain the colonies’ dependency on Great Britain.” Id. at 83. Franklin sent these letters to Massachusetts, prompting a crisis that would result in Franklin being terminated as deputy postmaster. Id.

In March 1775, he came back to America a changed man: a passionate patriot. Some of this passion was feigned, so as to show his fellow colonists that he was not an Englishman masquerading as a revolutionary. Id. at 84. He would become one of the most popular and widely respected Americans in the world, with only George Washington outshining him.

By the time of his death in 1790, Benjamin Franklin had created a legacy that lasts to this day. In the early Republic, that legacy was predicated on him showing that being self-made in America was not only possible, it was downright glamorous. Often forgotten or lost after those years of the early Republic, however, is that Franklin was not the same as the other Founding Fathers.

While Alexander Hamilton was not a full-blooded American and Thomas Jefferson spent a significant amount of time in Europe, Franklin so fully affiliated himself with England that it is difficult to draw a parallel to a contemporary American figure. In modern times, such an affiliation would certainly spell doom to a legacy.

Nonetheless, Franklin is remembered for his genius, his relatable nature, and his embodiment of the most American of ideals. Modern Americans’ forgiveness is likely warranted, but some may wonder: What if Franklin had not sent those letters? What would his legacy be then?

The Adulation of the Founding Fathers

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Depiction of Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson.

Gordon Wood began his 2006 book Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different by stating that “[n]o other major nation honors its past historical characters, especially characters who existed two centuries ago, in quite the manner we Americans do.” Gordon Wood, Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different, 3.

He continued, stating that Americans “want to know what Thomas Jefferson would think of affirmative action, or George Washington of the invasion of Iraq.” Id.

Scholars apparently have varying views as to why modern Americans revere the Founding Fathers, over two centuries after they first acquired their fame. Id. at 4.

Some scholars believe that it is because Americans are concerned “with constitutional jurisprudence and original intent” forming the basis for the Constitution. Id.

Other scholars posit that analyzing the Founding Fathers allows modern Americans to “recover what was wise and valuable in America’s past.” Id.

Another set of scholars explain that Americans look to the Founding Fathers to define the American identity. Id.

As Gordon Wood explained, this was not always the case. Toward the late 1800s and early 1900s, some Americans questioned the wisdom, accomplishments, and place of the Founding Fathers. Id. at 5. Nonetheless, for a significant portion of the 1900s and continuing into the 2000s, Americans look to the Founding Fathers for guidance.

While scholars may disagree as to the underlying purpose for modern Americans to honor the Founding Fathers, it can likely be explained by two points: (1) the Founding Fathers rigorously worked to create the best form of government possible and (2) the Founding Fathers knew adversity, difficulty, and hardship and yet held the country together.

As to the first point, the Founding Fathers engaged in one of the most substantial debates in history as to how a country should be best governed by its people to best ensure their happiness and prosperity. The resulting government was not only revolutionary and coherent, it has facilitated America’s success for two centuries with only 27 amendments to the Constitution being necessary.

The second point weighs a little heavier. The United States has endured many wars, tragedies, and difficulties. Few rival the tumultuous, uncertain times of the Revolution. Regardless, in both stable times and otherwise, America and its leaders have looked to the Founding Fathers for guidance. The logic underlying that goes “If the Founding Fathers could lead a revolution and fight a war against a mighty empire successfully, how would they deal with this scenario?”

All of the scholars’ views as to why Americans honor the Founding Fathers feeds into this point. When Americans ask these questions, like “What would the Founding Fathers do?”, they do so out of a wishful curiosity that leads to no clear answer.

This is a result that would likely please the Founding Fathers. The Founding Fathers did not have a secret to making the right decisions or coming to the right conclusions. They only did so through vigorous debate with each other and unyielding optimism about America’s future. That contentious debate spawned the system, institutions, beliefs, and ideals that define America.

Those debates should rage on with vigor. It is the least that modern Americans can do to repay the Founding Fathers.

The Happiest People Upon the Earth

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Benjamin Franklin. By: Joseph Siffred Duplessis.

At the beginning of the 1800s, the American economy was becoming an unconventionally successful economy. Domestic commerce was “incalculably more valuable” than foreign commerce and “the home market for productions of the earth and manufactures is of more importance than all foreign ones.” Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 707 quoting Nathan Miller, The Enterprise of a Free People: Aspects of Economic Development in New York State During the Canal Period, 1792-1838 (Ithaca, 1962), 42.

Meanwhile, a middle class was emerging in the United States. In the 1780s, Benjamin Franklin predicted “the almost mediocrity of fortune that prevails in America . . . [made] its people to follow some business for subsistence,” which made the United States “the land of labor.” Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 709 quoting Benjamin Franklin, “Information to Those Who Would Remove to America” (1784), Franklin: Writings, 975-83. This new middle class was gaining “a powerful moral hegemony over the society, especially in the North.” Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 709.

Both Benjamin Franklin and J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur hoped a society could exist that lacked “both an aristocracy and a lower class.” Id. at 711. As Charles Ingersoll observed in 1810, “Were it not for the slaves of the south, there would be one rank.” Id. quoting Charles Jared Ingersoll, Inchiquin, the Jesuit’s Letters (1810), in Gordon S. Wood, ed., The Rising Glory of America, 1760-1820 (New York, 1971), 387.

These developments would lead to some to conclude that the Americans in the North were “probably the happiest people upon the earth.” J.M. Opal, Beyond the Farm: National Ambitions in Rural New England (Philadelphia, 2008), 135, 136.

These early years of the Republic, where prosperity was so widely spread that a seemingly universal middle class existed is of course a bit of an exaggeration in that there were poor and rich segments of society. But, on the other hand, the fact that so many individuals during that time commented on the subject reflects that it was a phenomenon occurring. A more cohesive, more uniform society was emerging. It was a society free from the highest highs and lowest lows that had come to characterize Europe.

Since those early years, there has been a fluctuation in the strength and size of the middle class. One thing has not changed, however. The notion of a prosperous middle class has come to be an aspiration for all Americans. The early aspirations of Benjamin Franklin and other Founding Fathers transformed this dream into a reality. That reality is one that Americans hope to carry forward for many generations to come.

The Founding Fathers’ Religious Beliefs

Thomas Jefferson Seated at His Desk. By: Gilbert Stuart, 1805.

The religious beliefs of the Founding Fathers may serve as a surprise to some modern Americans. However, it is important to put into context that the Founding Fathers lived in an era that was not filled with the religious fervor that would become commonplace in the 1800s. See Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 576.

Thomas Jefferson hated “the clergy and organized religion.” Id. at 577. He said that the Trinity was “Abracadabra” and “hocus-pocus . . . so incomprehensible to the human mind that no candid man can say he has any idea of it,” and thus, ridiculing it was the best option. Id. quoting Thomas Jefferson to Horatio Spafford, 17 Mar. 1814, to James Smith, 8 Dec. 1822, in James H. Hutson, ed., The Founders on Religion: A Book of Quotations (Princeton, 2005), 68, 218.

Benjamin Franklin also appeared to harbor at least some dissension about religion, as he advised a friend in 1786 to not publish “anything attacking traditional Christianity” as “[he] that spits against the wind . . . spits in his own face.” Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 589. Franklin was keenly aware of the fact that Thomas Paine had “destroyed his reputation” by writing “scathing comments about Christianity in his Age of Reason (1794).” Id. citing Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason (1794), in Eric Foner, ed., Thomas Paine: Collected Writings (Library of America, 1995), 825.

George Washington, however, “had no deep dislike of organized religion or of the clergy as long as they contributed to civic life.” Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 585. In fact, during the Revolutionary War, “he had required all troops to attend religious services and had prescribed a public whipping for anyone disturbing those services.” Gordon Wood, Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different (New York, 2006), 35; Forrest Church, So Help Me God: The Founding Fathers and the First Great Battle over Church and State (New York, 2007), 36.

Underlying these early views was a key concept: the early American public would not tolerate its individuals, in government or not, undermining the sanctity of religion. Thomas Paine’s alienation, after his massive success of Common Sense highlights this fact.

It should also be noted that there were varying views about religion amongst the Founding Fathers. This diverse group of interests would ensure that the early Republic would not become a purely religious nation and not a purely secular nation.

As is evident in so many areas of American history, and world history for that matter, where diverse interests converge and the byproduct is moderation, success is much more likely. The role of religion in America was passed through this filter of moderation, which has ebbed and flowed for the past two centuries but has remained somewhere near the middle of the two options. That moderation has prevented religion from becoming a significant, schismatizing issue.

The Symbolism of the Early Republic

The Great Seal of the United States, as depicted on the one-dollar note.

In the earliest years of the Republic, the Founding Fathers sought to design the symbols and designs that would characterize the United States. One of the most prominent symbols of the early Republic is the Great Seal of the United States. Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams all tried to design the Great Seal. Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 554.

Benjamin Franklin proposed “a biblical scene, that of Moses” dividing the Red Sea. Id. Jefferson also wanted a depiction of a biblical scene, “the Children of Israel in the Wilderness.” Id. Adams, however, “proposed Hercules surveying the choice between Virtue and Sloth, the most popular of emblems in the eighteen century.” Id. 

Ultimately, Congress gave the job of designing the Great Seal to Charles Thomson, who designed the Great Seal familiar to all Americans. The eagle “on one side was a symbol of empire.” Id. The pyramid “represented the strength of the new nation,” and the “all-seeing eye on the reverse stood for providence.” Id.

The Latin mottoes also brought meaning to the new Republic. Novus Ordo Seclorum means “a new order of the ages,” and Annuit Coeptis means “He has looked after us.” These mottoes were taken from Virgil, the ancient Roman poet. Id. citing Frank H. Sommer, “Emblem and Device: The Origin of the Great Seal of the United States,” Art Quarterly, 24 (1961), 57-77; Steven C. Bullock, “‘Sensible Signs’: The Emblematic Education of Post-Revolutionary Freemasonry,” in Donald R. Kennon, ed., A Republic for the Ages: The United States Capitol and the Political Culture of the Early Republic (Charlottesville, 1999), 203, 210.

Meanwhile, others, like Jefferson, oversaw completion of buildings reminiscent of the ancient Roman buildings of many centuries ago. He sought to make the Virginia capitol building to be a copy of the Maison Carrée, an ancient Roman temple from the first century. Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 558. Jefferson believed that buildings modeled after ancient Rome would “improve the taste of my countrymen, to increase their reputation, and to reconcile to them the respect of the world, and procure them its praise.” Thomas Jefferson to William Buchanan and James Hay, 26 Jan. 1786, to James Madison, 20 Sept. 1785, Papers of Jefferson, 9: 220-22, 8: 534-35.

These early actions by the Founding Fathers inform modern students of history, and modern Americans generally, of the grandeur and splendor that the Founding Fathers hoped America would enjoy. The Founding Fathers understood that the creation of the Republic provided the greatest hope for the country, and perhaps the world, to be the most well-functioning, egalitarian society since ancient Rome.

The aspirations of the Founding Fathers for America must have helped Americans to propel the country ahead of others and to maintain its stature. The Founding Fathers began the narrative that America was destined for greatness. While those beginnings were modest, and much turmoil was to unfold over the course of the young country’s history, Americans will recognize that those symbols of centuries ago and the accompanying mottoes are not just meaningless symbols. They are symbols that remind all Americans of the humble, hopeful beginning of the United States.

The American Spirit of Work

Pittsburgh, 1790s.

Arthur Young, an English writer who was supposedly enlightened and known for his writings about agriculture commented that “Everybody but an idiot knows that the lower class must be kept poor or they will never be industrious.” Derek Jarrett, England in the Age of Hogarth, (London, 1974), 79-80.

This English belief, that the lower rungs of society were not entitled to an equal chance with their peers, captured the view of many for centuries leading up to the American Revolution. Most people in England believed that “people would not work unless they had to.” Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 324.

Benjamin Franklin, in 1784, asked the question: “Is not the Hope of one day being able to purchase and enjoy Luxuries a great Spur to labour and Industry?” Benjamin Franklin to Benjamin Vaughn, 26 July 1784. In the 1790s and early 1800s, farmers were now working hard and participating in national commerce “to increase their purchase of luxury goods and become more respectable,” not just to stay “out of poverty” or work by mere necessity. Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 324.

The equality amongst citizens in the early Republic was not only captured in the Constitution, but also had become woven into the fabric of American society. There was a universal belief that individuals were capable of accomplishing goals, of moving up in their profession, and of not being hindered by their modest means.

Some would look to these formative years as the spark that led to the great American economy. It is not clear how this culture emerged, or what prompted this culture to emerge, but it became obvious by the early 1800s that the American economy was a force to be reckoned with, largely in part because of its burgeoning population and rapid expansion westward.

That American spirit of work carries forward to today. Often, many politicians, commentators, and common folk are quick to explain that the American dream is dead. At least a part of the American dream, the ability for individuals to generate enough income to purchase luxuries to enjoy, has been present in Americans’ minds since the early Republic. Few would question whether this portion of the American dream is still being fulfilled by ordinary Americans.